Ancient History & Civilisation

On The Farm

“As usual, I am asking your advice on a matter of business. There are now for sale some landed properties that border on mine and, as a matter of fact, run into them. They have many points that tempt me. . . . First, the gain in beauty by rounding off” my holdings; then, the pleasure - to say nothing of the economy - of making one trip and expense serve for a visit to both properties and of keeping both under the same agent and practically the same managers. . . . It is 3,000,000 sesterces [some $12 million]. . . . True, I’ve practically all my funds tied up in land, but I have some cash on loan [money that could be called in], and borrowing presents no problem.” So wrote Pliny the Younger to a friend about the turn of the first century A.D.

Where else were wealthy Romans to invest their capital if not in land? There were no such things as stocks and bonds. There was, to be sure, commerce, but that was risky, involving for the most part speculating in cargoes to be bought or sold abroad. Besides, commerce was for the moneygrubbers, whereas landed property was a gentleman’s form of investment; it was where the best families had always put their money. And so, up and down Italy and throughout the provinces, farm acreage steadily passed into the hands of well-to-do absentee landlords; noblemen whose families had owned land for centuries accumulated yet more of it, and in their wake, the nouveaux riches, like Petronius’s rags-to-riches hero Trimalchio, began to acquire their maiden properties.

Over and above its social éclat, landowning was a sound form of investment. Though commerce and industry were thriving aspects of ancient economic life, both were minor compared with agriculture. Rome, Alexandria, Marseilles, Antioch, and Carthage were mighty ports whose docks and warehouses hummed with activity, but just a few miles inland from them, men lived almost totally off the land. Villages, towns, even great cities such as Milan or Lyons, were first and foremost agricultural centers serving, and kept alive by, surrounding farms.

Multimillionaires preferred to invest in the provinces, where they could amass properties of nearly feudal dimensions. At one time in the first century A.D., fully half of what is today Tunisia belonged to a mere six owners. In France, archaeologists have uncovered an estate that embraced 2,500 acres; the farm buildings alone covered forty-five. But men of such wealth naturally were comparatively few. There were many more on Pliny’s level, and these continued to put their money into Italy.

If they had in mind to invest in livestock - which almost always meant sheep and goats, to provide wool and hides for market - they would buy a large tract in the southern part of the peninsula, below Naples, where the poorish soil was more profitable to graze than to till. If their preference was crops, the alternatives were, by and large, grain, vines, or olives. Grain was, far more than now, the staff of life: From it came not only bread but the poor man’s daily porridge. Wine, too, played a far greater role then: The ancients drank it before, after, and between meals, as well as during; it was their coffee and tea and spirits. And olive oil was their butter, soap, and electricity: They cooked with it, anointed themselves with it at the baths, and burned it in their lamps. For grain, the choicest lands were in the flat plains of the Po Valley or the Campania around Naples; for wine, the hilly country of the Piedmont or Tuscany or the hills about Rome was best; while the finest olives were grown near the northern border of Campania. Landowners tended to favor vines. Italy’s wines commanded a good market up and down the peninsula and abroad as well, despite the high cost of transport (oxcart or donkey-back to the nearest port), whereas its grain and olives generally went no farther than the local markets.

There was one crucial decision to make: What kind of farm operation was it to be? A collection of family-sized plots for rental to tenants? Or big farms run by slave labor?

In certain cases, there was no choice: Large-scale grazing, for example, had to be done with slave-shepherds and goatherds. Where the choice existed, there were pros and cons on each side. Renting to tenants had the advantage of reducing an owner’s investment since he did not have to put out the formidable sum it took to buy a staff of slaves. On the other hand, he rarely could count on getting the maximum a property could yield. The terms were usually a five-year lease at a fixed cash rental. Under such an inflexible arrangement, one year of bad crops inevitably put the tenants into arrears, once behind, they rarely caught up, and the landlord found himself constantly lowering the rent. Sharecropping instead of cash provided the flexibility needed, but, as Pliny mentions in another letter, it involved constant surveillance of the tenants by inspectors to make sure there was no cheating. In any event, a tenant understandably had no interest in improving the property, particularly when he held so short a lease.

The alternative was slave labor, and a good many Roman farms, certainly most of the large ones, were run this way. It provided a more lucrative return than renting to tenants, but only at the cost of unflagging supervision and, when necessary, ruthlessness. The slaves were generally divided into two groups, those who were tractable enough to be left unguarded and those who had to be kept shackled. During the day, these worked in chain gangs; at night, they were locked up, still fettered, in ergastula, “work-houses,” underground cellars lighted only by slits in the walls high enough to be out of reach. Roman writers on farming make it clear that all the slaves, fettered or unfettered, were viewed as so much livestock: They were well fed and kept healthy because, this way, they paid off best. Baths were available, but they were allowed to use them only on holidays since the theory was that bathing was debilitating. They were encouraged to breed because the children could either be raised as replacements or sold at a good price. Columella, who in the middle of the first century A.D. wrote a book on agriculture that is our best source of information, explains that his principle was to reward a mother of three with reduced work assignments and a mother of four with freedom. Bad as this sounds, things had at least improved since the second century B.C., when Cato the Elder advised selling off overage slaves the way one sold off oxen too old for the plow.

On any farm run by slave labor, the key to success was the vilicus, the bailiff or farm manager, himself a slave but of higher quality than the others and trained for the job. Only an intelligent and energetic manager could get the work out of the help that would enable a property to produce the revenue it should. Over the manager was the agent, often a freedman, who was responsible for supervising the total holdings of an area, who reviewed the records and reported to the owner during his periodic visits.

Such visits were essential. As Columella puts it, a prudent landowner should see for himself “whether the slaves in the workhouses are carefully fettered . . . and whether the manager has chained or released any without authorization, . . . should inquire not only of the inmates but also of the slaves not in shackles - who are more to be believed - whether they are getting what is their due, should sample the quality of their food and drink by tasting it himself, should check on their clothing, mittens, and foot coverings. What is more, he should give them frequent chances to register complaints against those who treat them cruelly or dishonestly.”

There were still independent peasants around. Probably most were concentrated in the area of large towns and cities, specializing in vegetables for the local market; this could be done with good success as a family operation. Peasants who were not so conveniently located and raised traditional crops, such as grain or vines, could help make ends meet by hiring out to their wealthy neighbors at harvest or vintage time, when additional hands were needed. And they could always pick up extra money by taking on dangerous chores, since owners of slave-run farms preferred to hire men for such work rather than use their own people - exactly like plantation owners in the antebellum South who reckoned that the death of a day-laborer “merely increased the Kingdom of Heaven; if a slave were killed, there was $1,500 gone.” There were very few Roman squires, owners of large farms who lived on them all year round and ran them in person. All in all, in Italy of the second century A.D., most crops and fruits were raised, most sheep and goats grazed, by tenants or slaves on estates that belonged to landlords in Rome or other big cities.

Italy has a Mediterranean climate with scant rainfall. The ancient farmer, like his modern counterpart, practiced dry farming, as it is called, in which the major concern is to preserve the moisture in the soil. In order to prevent its evaporation, he plowed his land at least three times a year or even more - nine times in the clayey terrain of Tuscany. He used the type of plow that merely breaks the ground, for exposing the earth too deeply would allow moisture to escape. He let fields lie fallow every other year - a system that did its part in driving the small farm out of existence, since it forced a family, with limited acreage to begin with, to live off the produce of only half of it. Vineyards were carefully hoed to reduce evaporation, and equally carefully weeded, since no intrusive growth was to usurp any of the precious moisture.

Though farms concentrated on grain or vines or olives, this was never to the exclusion of all else. There were almost always a vegetable patch, orchard, and barnyard, at least to serve the needs of the staff if not for market. The patch yielded just about the range of produce we have today. So did the orchards, despite the repeated statement that citrus fruits were unknown to the Romans. The wall paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum include oranges, lemons, and limes, as well as apples, peaches, pears, plums, and so on. Nuts were walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds. What did differ from its modern counterpart was the barnyard. Roman farms, particularly those that catered to big-city markets whose customers were looking for fowl more exotic than chicken, goose, or duck, raised guinea hens, pheasants, peacocks, and thrushes.

Most farms had at least some livestock. There were sheep and goats, partly for the clip to weave into clothes for the family or help, partly for the milk to make into cheese; often pigs, which could be fed cheaply on slops (herding pigs for market was concentrated in the north, where there were still oak forests and consequently acorns); and generally a limited number of cattle, more for the manure than anything else. And every farm kept bees since honey was the ancient world’s sugar.

Of the work animals, the most important were the yokes of oxen for pulling the plows. Horses were rarely used for farm work, being too expensive; they were bred to race and to provide mounts for the cavalry and the couriers in the government post. Carts were drawn by yokes of oxen or spans of mules, and the beast of burden was the donkey.

The tools used on a Roman farm are all familiar: plow, harrow, spade, mattock, hoe, rake, for turning the soil; scythe and sickle for reaping; flails for threshing, or a threshing board pulled by oxen (when the threshing was not done simply by having animals or men tread on the crop); winnowing fans for winnowing. A farmer from Neolithic times would have recognized most of them. As a matter of fact, aside from improved drainage and irrigation, certain better strains of seed and fruit, and the like, there had been precious little advance in agricultural technology since his day. Even so simple yet superbly useful a gadget as the wheelbarrow did not arrive on the scene until the thirteenth century when it was borrowed from China. The most remarkable example of technological laggardness is the water mill. Rome had water mills at least by the first century B.C.; yet then and forever after, their use was limited to certain large-scale installations connected with the army. Though a water mill could grind in three minutes what took a man with a hand quern an hour, its possibilities were not exploited until the Middle Ages. The ancient landowner, for whatever reason - and many have been offered - sought what he considered a reasonable return; he never turned his mind toward ways to extract every penny he possibly could.

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